As it’s commonly used, the term "gluten-free" does not mean free of all gluten. Instead, it means that a particular product is free of almost all gluten. But almost may not be good enough for many of us.
Unless precisely defined, the term "gluten-free" is misleading. I don’t care how much the term is thrown around by manufacturers and writers, most "gluten-free" products are not really gluten-free they just contain far less gluten than other products in their categories. The problem faced by those of us who are sensitive to trace amounts of gluten is that products rarely are labeled to specify the precise range of gluten they contain.
Trace Gluten Reactions Vary Depending on PPM Level, Amount You Consume, Your Sensitivity
The amount of gluten in a "gluten-free" product can make a huge difference in how we react, just as the amount of alcohol in a drink can determine how we react to the drink. For example, we all know that drinking a jigger of rum that is 40% alcohol will cause a greater alcohol reaction than drinking a jigger of wine that is 12% alcohol.
And of course (to continue my alcohol analogy), we all know that the degree of our reaction to alcohol is not determined merely by a drink’s alcohol content, but also by how many drinks we consume. Drinking three jiggers of rum causes a greater reaction than drinking just one jigger.
But it’s even more complicated. Different people react differently to the same amount of alcohol. Depending on body weight, how much alcohol you’re accustomed to drinking, and other factors, one person may feel the effects of drinking those three jiggers much more than another person.
And so it is with gluten. Reactions to it vary from person to person, and those reactions are determined not merely by how much gluten is in a "gluten-free" product we consume, but also by how much of that product we consume.
So How Can You Determine How Much Trace Gluten A Product Contains?
As with information about alcohol content, you would think that shoppers would be provided with reliable, meaningful information about the amount of gluten that’s in the "gluten-free" products they use. But in many cases, we aren’t provided with that information. I hope to help change that.
The quantity of gluten in a particular product can be expressed scientifically as a certain number of parts of gluten contained in each million parts of the product: parts per million, or ppm, of gluten. Another way to think of the concept of "parts per million" is that it is in effect a percentage of gluten in a particular product (for example, foods that contain 20 parts per million of gluten contain 0.002% gluten).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering regulations that would allow food manufacturers to place "gluten-free" labels on foods that contain less than 20 ppm of gluten (for more on this, see: What You Should Know About the FDA's Gluten-Free Label Rules.). In addition, Canada considers 20 ppm to be "gluten-free", as do countries in the European Union.
However, many people react to food products that are labeled "gluten-free" but still contain less than 20 ppm of gluten (for more on this, see my article: I am eating gluten-free but I still have symptoms. Why am I getting sick?). Manufacturers know this, and some voluntarily adhere to a more stringent testing standard than 20 ppm typically, they use 10 ppm or 5 ppm.
Currently, it's not possible to test down to zero ppm of gluten. The most sensitive commercially available test can detect gluten down to 3 ppm, and that test reports anything lower as "undetectable." However, for some of us, "undetectable" doesn't apply to our bodies our bodies are quite capable of detecting gluten below that 3 ppm level. If you experience your typical glutening reaction to a food that tested "undetectable," you should assume your body is more sensitive than the most sensitive test available today, and that the food indeed contains gluten (albeit at levels below 3 ppm).
Finally (as if all this wasn't complicated enough already), rather than state a specific number of ppm of gluten in a product, the industry uses "less than" ranges. For example, a product is referred to as "20 ppm" if it contains less than 20 ppm of gluten. This means the product may contain anywhere from as many as 19 ppm of gluten down to zero gluten. As a practical matter, we should all assume the worst and treat that product as containing 19 ppm.
If we want to be sure a product contains less trace gluten, then we would want to know that it is considered a 10 ppm, 5 ppm or 3 ppm product. For ease of reference, I will use the term "GF-20" to mean that a product contains less than 20 ppm of gluten, "GF-10" to mean less than 10 ppm, and so on.
You Might React When Someone Else Doesn't
Everyone's reaction is different. For example, depending on your sensitivity level, you might not react at all to a given quantity of GF-3 food, such as eating one GF-3 cookie. However, you might have a mild reaction to eating one GF-5 cookie, a greater reaction to one GF-10 cookie, and an even greater reaction to a GF-20 cookie.
And of course, as with alcohol, it’s not just how potent the cookie is, it’s how many you consume that can affect you. So even if you didn't react at all to eating one GF-3 cookie, you might have a reaction if you eat two or three GF-3 cookies.
You also might react even if someone else doesn't that's why you shouldn't listen to people who tell you that "I didn't react, so it has to be perfectly gluten-free!" Everyone's reaction is different.
For more on sensitivity levels, see: How Much Gluten Can Make Me Sick?
Here's A Resource To Help Determine Gluten PPM Amounts
So it’s important that we know the ppm rating for a particular product before we use it. At present, that information is not generally displayed on product labels. However, I have culled from the companies information about those ratings and am presenting the information in what I call my Gluten PPM Table. Note that I cannot and have not attempted to independently verify the accuracy of the companies' stated ppm levels.
Some people believe that providing this information could cause some companies (specifically, those producing GF-20 foods) to stop making "gluten-free" foods altogether. But I've thought about this, and I believe that adopting an approach of stating various specific ppm levels instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all less than 20 ppm definition of "gluten-free" will not necessarily encourage people to use products with lower and lower levels of gluten. In fact, the opposite may happen.
How any given person reacts to any given quantity of a product with any given level of gluten varies dramatically from person to person. It likely costs companies more to produce products with lower levels of gluten, and presumably these higher costs are reflected in higher product prices. If you know that you do not react to GF-20 products, then why pay more for GF-10, 5 or 3 products? In other words, providing more ppm information actually may save some consumers money.
I’ll be interested in readers’ feedback on this approach and the Gluten PPM Table, including suggestions for additions or changes. The table is presented in the hope that it will evolve into a more and more useful resource as we add information to it. If you have thoughts on this approach or on the Gluten PPM Table, please email me and let me know what you're thinking.